Photo credit: Kinga Cichewicz
Seven to eight hours of shut-eye per night can help you lose weight, boost your memory, and live longer. So why are nearly one in three U.S. adults not getting the recommended amount of sleep? Whether it’s stress, distractions, poor diet and exercise habits, or an endless to-do list, here are five ways to improve the quantity and quality of your sleep.
We’ve all been there at some point; your mind becomes so saturated with thoughts that it seems impossible to turn your brain off. Stress and anxiety are a part of life, but continuous stress raises your blood pressure, straining your circulatory system, causing muscle tension, and exacerbating digestive issues. It’s no wonder sleep becomes impacted when the body is in constant fight-or-flight mode.
There’s a reciprocal relationship between sleep and mental health. A stressed and anxious mind affects the body’s physiology and ability to sleep, and the inattentiveness and emotional instability stemming from lack of sleep perpetuates an unhealthy psychological state. You may adopt a number of coping mechanisms to manage your mental health, including meditation, therapy, journaling, and in some cases, medication. Some lifestyle changes, such as avoiding caffeine and nicotine before bed, can also alleviate the stimulus that stress puts on the body. In taking charge of your mental well-being, you are also taking charge of your sleep issues and developing a healthy symbiosis between mind and body.
While exercise can be an exhilarating and energizing activity, it can also help you obtain a better quality of rest. For one, the mechanics of exercise provide some stress-busting benefits, which optimize your mental health. As mentioned above, stress physiologically prevents the body from achieving a relaxed state, but the repetitive nature of some sports (think: hitting a tennis ball back-and-forth, going through a yoga sequence multiple times, etc.) helps the mind concentrate on a rhythmic, meditative activity.
The strength required in many physical activities also provides a stress-busting opportunity to shed any tensions. The exercise-sleep connection is supported scientifically—physical activity produces endorphins, a chemical that boosts mood and fights depression. Exercising five to six hours before sleep is ideal, as it raises the body’s core temperature just enough so that as the core temperature lowers, it signals to your body that it’s time to sleep.
If your schedule or budget does not permit regular gym membership, there are many simple, accessible ways to incorporate physical exercise into your routine. A brisk walk down the block, gardening work outside, and household chores can easily add some light cardio to your routine.
While you may not be consciously perceiving it, sleep is a sensory experience. Creating the ideal sleep environment is critical for some quality shut-eye. Keep your room below 68 degrees to aid in the body’s natural process of preparing itself for slumber. You may also consider a white noise machine. Disruptive sounds prevent sleep, so a consistently soothing, mellow sound can drown out other distractions that may wake you.
Another key piece of the ideal sleep environment is a dark room. Artificial light mimics natural light, disrupting your body’s natural rhythm. Even small beams of light from an alarm clock or a push notification from your phone may distract you from sleep, so turn all devices off or flip them over. Blackout shades and eye masks can also block out artificial light. Just as what you see and hear can affect sleep, what you smell can, too. Research has shown that certain scents, such as lavender and vanilla, are linked to better rest. While you may not want to light a candle, some simple aromatherapy may do the trick.
Given that we spend one third of our lives sleeping, it only makes sense to spend that time as comfortably as possible. A comfortable bed begins with the right mattress. While some of us prefer a firm mattress and others prefer soft, the key is to find a mattress that provides adequate support without too much pressure to certain body parts. While finances may not always allow for a new mattress, you can certainly remedy your current mattress situation with a few tricks.
For mattresses that are too soft, a few boards of plywood atop the box spring can add some support. For mattresses that are too firm, a mattress pad or topper can add an additional layer of plushness. Next, come the sheets. Flannel sheets tend to keep you warmer, while cotton sheets are great for staying cool (and easy laundry care). Additionally, you may want to swap your pillowcases for silk ones; not only do they feel luxurious, but they reduce bed head and split ends. To make your bed into the ultimate oasis, consider a plush throw or a hefty blanket. Weighted blankets have been shown to promote better sleep by releasing serotonin, and have even helped insomnia sufferers feel more settled before bed.
Sleep hygiene is a concept that refers not only to the habits that affect your quality of rest, but those which add regularity to your sleep/wake cycle. Optimal sleep hygiene begins with designating sleep time for the same general hours each day. While it’s important to honor your body’s needs for rest, limit daytime naps to 30 minutes. Napping actually does not compensate for a good night’s sleep, though brief naps can help improve mood and alertness.
The body works most effectively on routine, so establish regular behaviors before bed to help your body recognize that it’s bedtime. This may include a warm shower, reading books, drinking tea, or doing light stretches. Try to avoid emotionally exerting conversations or activities to allow your mind and body to relax. Your body will eventually come to recognize that these activities represent a time for it to wind down.
Keep in mind, you won’t feel the benefits of effective sleep after just one night. Sleeping well implies a pattern of consistently restful nights, so keep a written log of your sleep schedule and be mindful of your daily habits. After all, what you do during the day affects how well you sleep at night.
Author Kay Pascale is a writer in Durham, NC. When she isn’t writing about health or the latest wellness trends, she enjoys traveling, trying out the local food scene, and running with her dog.